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Facsimile of the title page of the quarto version of Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing is a romantic comedy by William Shakespeare set in Messinamarker, Sicily. The story concerns a pair of lovers named Claudio and Hero who are due to be married in a week. To pass the time before their wedding day, they conspire with Don Pedro, the prince of Aragonmarker, to trick their friends, Beatrice and Benedick, into confessing their love for one another. The prince's illegitimate brother, Don John, however, jealous of both Don Pedro's power and his affection for Claudio, plans to sabotage the coming wedding.

Date and text

The earliest printed text states that Much Ado About Nothing was "sundry times publicly acted" prior to 1600 and it is likely that the play made its debut in the autumn or winter of 1598–1599. The earliest recorded performances, however, are two that were given at Court in the winter of 1612–13, during the festivities preceding the marriage of Princess Elizabeth with Frederick V, Elector Palatine (14 February 1613). The play was published in quarto in 1600 by the stationers Andrew Wise and William Aspley. This was the only edition prior to the First Folio in 1623.

Setting

Much Ado About Nothing is set in Messinamarker, a coastal settlement on the island of Sicily which is located next to the toe end of Italy. Even though Sicily was ruled by Spain at the time the play was set, the characters clearly reflect a more Southern Italian heritage. The action of the play takes place mainly at the home and grounds of Leonato, although some scenes are set in the city itself.

Characters

  • Don Pedro, Prince of Aragonmarker
  • Benedick, of Paduamarker; a lord, companion of Don Pedro
  • Claudio, of Florencemarker; a lord, companion of Don Pedro
  • Balthasar, attendant on Don Pedro, a singer
  • Don John, "the Bastard Prince," brother of Don Pedro and the main villain
  • Borachio and Conrade, followers of Don John
  • Leonato, governor of Messina
  • Hero, Leonato's daughter
  • Beatrice, an orphan, Leonato's niece
  • Antonio, an old man, brother of Leonato


  • Margaret, waiting-gentlewoman attendant on Hero
  • Ursula, waiting-gentlewoman attendant on Hero
  • Friar Francis, a priest
  • Dogberry, the grand constable in charge of Messina's night watch
  • Verges, the Headborough, Dogberry’s partner
  • A Sexton, the judge of the trial of Borachio
  • The Watch,watchmen of Messina
  • A Boy, serving Benedick
  • Attendants and messengers
  • Innogen, a ghost character included in early editions as Leonato's wife


Synopsis

Messina, Don Pedro, an Italian prince from Aragon, and his deputies, Claudio and Benedick, have just returned from a successful battle. Leonato, the governor of Messina, welcomes them for passing by the city and invites them to stay for a month and to have a masked party.

Leonato's niece, Beatrice, and Benedick, longtime adversaries, carry on their arguments. Claudio’s feelings for Hero, Leonato's only daughter, are rekindled on his seeing her, and Claudio soon announces to Benedick his intention to court her. Benedick tries to dissuade his friend, but is unsuccessful in the face of Don Pedro’s encouragement. While Benedick teases Claudio, Benedick swears that he will never get married. Don Pedro laughs at him and tells him that when he has found the right person he shall get married.

A masquerade ball is planned in celebration, giving a disguised Don Pedro the opportunity to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. Don John uses this situation to get revenge on his brother Don Pedro by telling young Claudio that Don Pedro is actually wooing Hero for himself. Claudio then becomes furious at Don Pedro and confronts him. The misunderstanding is quickly resolved and Claudio wins Hero's hand in marriage.

Don Pedro and his men, bored at the prospect of waiting a week for the matrimonial ceremony to take place, harbor a plan to matchmake Beatrice and Benedick. The men, led by Don Pedro, proclaim Beatrice’s love for Benedick while knowing he is eavesdropping on their conversation. The women, led by Hero, do the same likewise to Beatrice. Struck by the fact that they are apparently thought to be too proud to love each other, Beatrice and Benedick, neither willing to bear the reputation of pride, each decides to requite the love of the other.

Meanwhile Don John, 'The Bastard', Don Pedro's illegitimate brother, is a malcontent who plots to ruin Claudio and Hero’s wedding plans by casting aspersions upon Hero’s character. His follower Borachio courts Margaret, Hero's chambermaid, calling her “Hero”, at Hero’s open bedroom window while Don John leads Don Pedro and Claudio to spy below. The latter two, mistaking Margaret for Hero, are convinced of Hero's infidelity.

The next day, during the wedding at the church, Claudio climactically refuses to marry Hero. He and Don Pedro humiliate Hero publicly before a stunned congregation and Margaret, who is attending the wedding, does not speak up in Hero's defence. The two leave, leaving the rest in shock. Hero, who has fainted from shock, revives after Don Pedro and Claudio leave, only to be reprimanded by her father. The presiding Friar interrupts, believing Hero to be innocent, and he convinces the family to fake Hero's death in order to extract the truth and Claudio’s remorse.

Leonato and Antonio, Hero's uncle, subsequently blame Don Pedro and Claudio for Hero’s death, and both challenge Claudio to duels. Benedick, forcefully prompted by Beatrice, does the same.

Astonishingly, however, on the night of Don John's treachery, the local Watch has apprehended Borachio and his ally Conrade. Despite the Watch's comic ineptness (headed by constable Dogberry, a master of malapropisms), they have overheard the duo discussing their evil plans. The Watch arrest them and eventually obtain the villains' confession, whilst informing Leonato of Hero's innocence. Though Don John has meanwhile fled the city, a force is sent to capture him. Claudio, though maintaining he made an honest mistake, is repentant; he agrees to not only post a proper epitaph for Hero, but to marry a substitute, Hero's cousin (not Beatrice), in her place.

During Claudio’s second wedding, however, as the dancers enter, the "cousin" is unmasked as Hero herself, to a most surprised and gratified Claudio. An impromptu dance is announced. Beatrice and Benedick, prompted by their friends’ interference, finally confess their love for each other. As the play draws to a close, a messenger arrives with news of Don John’s capture – but his punishment is postponed another day so that the couples can enjoy their new found happiness.

Analysis and criticism

Themes and motifs

Opposite sex

Benedick and Beatrice fast became the main interest of the play; Charles I even wrote 'Benedick and Beatrice' beside the title of the play in his copy of the Second Folio. The provocative treatment of gender issues is central to Much Ado and should be considered in the play's Renaissance sociological context. While this was reflected and emphasised in certain plays of the period it was also challenged. Amussen notes that the destabilising of traditional gender ideologies appears to have inflamed anxieties about the erosion of social order. It seems that comic drama could be a means of calming such anxieties. Ironically, we can see through the play's popularity that this only increased peoples fascination with such behaviour. Benedick is a witty stage misogynist voicing male anxieties about women's "sharp tongues and proneness to sexual lightness". In the patriarchal society of the play, the men's loyalties were governed by conventional codes of honour and camaraderie and a sense of superiority to women. Assumptions that women are by nature prone to inconstancy are shown in the repeated jokes on cuckoldry and partly explain Claudio's readiness to believe the slur against Hero. However, this stereotype is turned on its head in Balthasar's song, which shows men to be the deceitful and inconstant sex that women must suffer.

Infidelity

A theme common to Much Ado about Nothing and many other of Shakespeare’s works is cuckoldry, or infidelity of a wife. Several of the characters seem to be obsessed by the idea that a man has no way to know if his wife is unfaithful, and therefore women can take full advantage of that fact. Don John plays upon Claudio’s pride and fear of cuckoldry, which leads to the disastrous first wedding scene. Because of their mistrust of female sexuality, many of the males easily believe that Hero is impure, and even her father readily condemns her with very little proof. This motif runs through the play, most often in references to horns, a well-known symbol of cuckoldry.

Deception

In Much Ado About Nothing, there are many examples of deliberate deception and self-deception. In the play, the games and tricks played on people often have the best intentions - to make people fall in love, to help someone get what they want, or to make someone realise their mistake. Not all, however, are meant well.

Noting

Another motif occurring throughout the work is the play on the words nothing and noting, which, in Shakespeare’s day, were homophones. Taken literally, the title implies that a great fuss (“much ado”) is made of something which is insignificant (“nothing”), such as the unfounded claims of Hero’s infidelity. However, the title could also be understood as “Much Ado about Noting.” Indeed, much of the action of the play revolves around interest in and critique of others, written messages, spying, and eavesdropping. This is a theme throughout the play, and is mentioned multiple times particularly concerning "seeming", "fashion" and immediate outward impressions. Additionally, nothing is a double-entendre; "an O-thing" (or "'n othing", or "no thing") was Elizabethan slang for "vagina". Finally, 'noting' can refer to singing, especially sight-reading.

Examples of noting as noticing occur in the following instances: (1.1.131-132)

and (4.1.154-157).

At (3.3.102-104), Borachio indicates that a man’s clothing doesn’t indicate his character:

A triple play on words in which noting signifies noticing, musical notes, and nothing occurs at (2.3.47-52):

Don Pedro’s last line can be understood to mean, “Pay attention to your music and nothing else!” The complex layers of meaning include a pun on "crotchets," which can mean both "quarter notes" (in music) and whimsical notions.

The following are puns on notes as messages: (2.1.174-176),

in which Benedick plays on the word post as a pole and as mail delivery in a joke reminiscent of Shakespeare’s earlier advice “Don’t shoot the messenger”; and (2.3.138-142)

in which Leonato makes a sexual innuendo concerning sheet as a sheet of paper (on which Beatrice’s love note to Benedick is to have been written) and a bedsheet.

Significance of character names

Don Pedro: Pedro is the Spanish form of the Biblical name Peter, which means "stone." The significance of the name is that it immediately identifies him as Spanish — the Italian variant of the name is Pietro.

Benedick: Benedick means "blessed"; the root bene means "good." Note that Benedick and Beatrice have similar meanings.The name can also be interpreted as the two words bene (Latin for "good") and dicere (Latin for "to speak"). This is a reference to his unusual eloquence. It can also be taken as the obvious sexual pun.

Claudio: Claudio is derived from claudus, meaning "lame" or "crippled." Claudio is both the Spanish and Italian variant.

Don John: The name John is reminiscent of King John of England (known as Prince John), who had a reputation for treachery and usurpation of the throne. The Spanish variant is properly Juan, which would likely have been pronounced "djoo-en" in Shakespeare’s day. Also, see Don John, the illegitimate son of Charles I of Spain.

Borachio: Borachio is similar to the Spanish word "Borracho," which means "drunk." Borachio is a type of beer bottle

Leonato: Leonato is derived from the Greek word for lion.

Hero: In Greek mythology, Hero was the lover of Leander. Each night Leander swam across the Hellespontmarker to meet her. When he accidentally drowned while crossing, she threw herself in the water and drowned as well.

Beatrice: Beatrice means "the one that blesses." Note that Benedick and Beatrice have similar meanings.

Dogberry: The name Dogberry reflects Shakespeare’s common practise of giving fools ridiculous-sounding names.

Verges: Verges is derived from the word verge, a wand or staff of office.

Performance history

The play was very popular in its early decades, as it would be later: in a poem published in 1640, Leonard Digges wrote "...let but Beatrice / And Benedick be seen, lo in a trice / The Cockpitmarker galleries, boxes, all are full."

After the theaters re-opened during the Restoration, Sir William Davenant staged The Law Against Lovers (1662), which inserted Beatrice and Benedick into an adaptation of Measure for Measure. Another adaptation, The Universal Passion, combined Much Ado with a play by Molière (1737). Meanwhile, Shakespeare's original text had been revived by John Rich at Lincoln's Inn Fieldsmarker (1721). David Garrick first played Benedick in 1748, and would continue to play the role till 1776.

The great nineteenth century stage team Henry Irving and Ellen Terry counted Benedick and Beatrice as their greatest tandem triumph, and Charles Kemble also had a great success as Benedick. John Gielgud made Benedick one of his signature roles between 1931 and 1959, playing the part opposite the Beatrice of Diana Wynward, Peggy Ashcroft, and Margaret Leighton. The longest running Broadwaymarker production is A.J. Antoon's 1972 staging starring Sam Waterston, Kathleen Widdoes and Barnard Hughes, and Derek Jacobi won a Tony Award for playing Benedick in 1984. Jacobi had also played Benedick in the Royal Shakespeare Company's highly-praised 1982 production. Director Terry Hands produced the play on a stage-length mirror, against an unchanging backdrop of painted trees. Sinéad Cusack played Beatrice.

On stage



Adaptations

There have been several notable adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing.

Television

There have been several screen adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing, and almost all of them have been made for television. In 2005 the BBC adapted the story by setting it in the modern-day studios of Wessex Tonight, a fictional regional news programme, as part of the ShakespeaRe-Told season, with Damian Lewis, Sarah Parish, and Billie Piper.

Film

The first cinematic version in English may have been the 1913 silent film directed by Phillips Smalley. The first major non-silent cinematic version in English was the highly acclaimed 1993 film by Kenneth Branagh.

Other

The opera Béatrice et Bénédict op. 27 (1862) by Hector Berlioz is based upon Much Ado About Nothing.

Very recently, the Klingon Language Institute translated Much Ado About Nothing into Klingon, similar to the Klingon Hamlet.

Another important adaptation is the 1973 New York Shakespeare Festival production, by Joseph Papp, shot on videotape and released on VHS and DVD, that presents more of the text than Kenneth Branagh's version. The Papp production stars Sam Waterston, Kathleen Widdoes, and Barnard Hughes.

In 2006 the American Music Theatre Project produced The Boys Are Coming Home, a musical adaptation by Berni Stapleton and Leslie Arden that sets Much Ado about Nothing in World War II America.

References

  1. See textual notes to Much Ado about Nothing in The Norton Shakespeare (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997 ISBN 0-393-97087-6) p. 1387
  2. G. Blakemore Evans, The Riverside Shakespeare, Houghton Mifflin, 1974; p. 327.
  3. McEachern, Much Ado About Nothing, Arden; 3rd edition, 2005).
  4. Amussen, Ordered Society, Columbia University Press (April 15, 1994).
  5. See Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to Much Ado about Nothing in The Norton Shakespeare (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997 ISBN 0-393-97087-6) at p. 1383.
  6. See Gordon Williams "A Glossary of Shakespeare's Sexual Language" (Althone Press, 1997 ISBN 0-485-12130-1) at p.219: "As Shakespeare's title ironically acknowledges, both vagina and virginity are a nothing causing Much Ado."
  7. F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 326-7.


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